The Arizona Republic, August 30, 1998

Boy's plight was worse than photo
By E. J. Montini

The photographs of the dead boy made them sick, so they telephoned the paper and scrawled angry notes and sent messages over the Internet.

"We are canceling our subscription tomorrow morning," a Phoenix couple wrote. "We were both shocked by the manner in which the photos were displayed."

The photos of the dead boy were displayed on the front page, where they belonged.

They showed the chest and side of Nicholaus Contreraz, who died March 2 at the Arizona Boys Ranch in Oracle. They didn't show his face, just the torso. A specialist hired by the state found 71 cuts and bruises on the 16-year-old's body. You saw what that meant - 71 - in the photographs.

If we could have looked under the boy's skin, beneath his ribs, we might have seen the 2 1/2 quarts of pus in the lining of one of his lungs. He had pneumonia. He had bronchitis.

He had no chance.

Nobody called governor

He was ignored and brutalized by the staff at Boys Ranch, forced to do exercises and to carry a bucket of his own waste and vomit. He was taunted and mocked and pushed until he died.

But it was the photographs that shocked people.

They called the paper and wrote letters and sent angry messages over the Internet. The ones who contacted me didn't say anything about calling the Governor's Office, though. They hadn't called a state representative or senator, or the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees Boys Ranch.

They'd seen the photographs but missed the big picture.

At a press conference last week, the state said it wasn't renewing Boys Ranch's license, for now. That could change. It probably will change.

The ranch has powerful friends and supporters, people who believe in its get-tough style of dealing with juvenile delinquents.

A few years back, Dr. Ronald H. Davidson, director of the mental-health policy program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote an unflattering report about the ranch, and Boys Ranch sued him. The case was later dismissed. "The pity is that they think their methods are working," Davidson told me last week. "That's a joke. When you look at the research data on boot camps, it is abysmal. You could take those kids and put them on the moon for six months and they'd probably have exactly the same positive outcome as if you put them at Boys Ranch.

"Does that mean Boys Ranch is a success? No. Taking them out of a negative environment is what does the trick."

Contreraz was from California, which has pulled all of its kids from the ranch. There are about 150 boys still in residence. Only a few of them are from Arizona.

Still, the referrals continue.

How many may die?

It's because some boys do well there. Boys Ranch can parade a long line of "success" stories before any government panel questioning its methods.

Those terrible photographs on Page One were a way of asking:

"How many dead boys are we willing to accept for the successes?"

Is one too many? Or does it matter?

After all, the kids at Boys Ranch are there because they did something wrong. Committed some crime. Some series of crimes. The last thing Contreraz got picked up for was joy-riding in a stolen car. His mother and grandmother decided they couldn't control him. His probation officer in Sacramento suggested the facility in Arizona.

It was supposed to straighten him out.

Within a few months, with no one around to look out for him, he was dead.

Dr. Davidson sent me a copy of a prayer supposedly written by slaves in South Carolina in 1866. He thought it might apply. It goes:

Do Lawd, come down here and walk amongst yo people.
And do Lawd, come yoself.
Don't send yo son.
Cause this ain't no place for chillun.

E. J. Montini can be reached at (602) 271-8978 or at via e-mail.

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